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Cambridgeshire mayor Dr Nik Johnson pledges ‘I won’t walk away’ in first speech since conduct probe launched

Cambridgeshire’s under-fire mayor says “serious resuscitation” has been needed to keep the heart of the Combined Authority beating in his first speech since a probe into his conduct was launched.

Dr Nik Johnson, the mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, at the his office in Ely. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Nik Johnson, the mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, at the his office in Ely. Picture: Keith Heppell

Dr Nik Johnson says “scrutiny, criticism and investigation” continues to be uncomfortable but “if there are concerns, they should always be investigated”.

The mayor made the comments during a speech at the start of the Combined Authority board’s annual meeting today (Wednesday).

The speech comes after reports that an external auditor said the authority has “significant weaknesses” in governance arrangements. It said without “appropriate leadership capacity... there is significant doubt” the authority can carry out its duties.

The Combined Authority has said it was working to “address the issues the letter raises”.

Today’s annual meeting was preceded by the resumption of the extraordinary meeting of the authority which began on May 20 after a motion calling for Dr Johnson to resign or suspend himself amid the probe was tabled.

This had followed a whistleblowing inquiry and came after chief executive Eileen Milner quit her £203,000-a-year role in April. The chair of the Combined Authority Business Board, Austen Adams, also stepped down.

At the earlier meeting, the board had passed an amended motion to support the investigation and “not interfere or prejudge any outcome nor see any reason to cause the mayor himself to prejudge the outcome”.

Before entering the private session it heard allegations that “truly dreadful things” had happened at the “broken” and “catastrophically” failing Combined Authority.

In today’s speech, the Labour mayor said he was “very conscious” that there has been a lot of “additional information and speculation in the public domain”.

“Following advice from staff within the CPCA to date very little additional information has been heard from myself. I have followed this advice as there are several sensitive ongoing processes and I am very mindful of the need to respect these and to not be seen as trying to influence any outcomes,” he said before setting out achievements made by the Combined Authority in the past year.

Dr Johnson, who was elected last May ousting Conservative James Palmer in a shock result, addressed the recent £49.7m underspend the Combined Authority had registered against its budget for its major projects programme, with more than £20m unused on transport - and the news that it had missed out on potentially millions of pounds in government funding for active travel.

Former Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority chief executive Eileen Milner quit her role in April
Former Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority chief executive Eileen Milner quit her role in April

He said: “We have been taking steps to improve the way we work. Steps have been taken to improve the way we consider risk, the way we measure outcomes from our projects, to start to get a handle on underspends.”

And added: “We need to demonstrate a deep self-awareness about our need for improvement.”

The mayor then went on to make a personal statement about his first year as mayor and in particular the past few months.

Dr Johnson said: “I was once told by a very good friend that I was always at my best out campaigning and speaking publicly when I spoke as a doctor – the person, the children’s doctor I have been day in, day out for the last 30 years, and not trying to speak like a politician.

“They were very wise words and on reflection I now know why they were so insightful, it was because when I spoke like a doctor, I spoke from the heart.”

The mayor said that as an NHS doctor, there is “no one more aware of the importance that anybody within any organisation should feel empowered to be able to report their concerns” and then went on to say that he had raised concerns on “numerous occasions” and called for a review of the organisation.

He continued: “No organisation and no single individual is beyond the public expectation of full scrutiny and full public disclosure - if there are concerns, they should always be investigated.

“It is for this very reason that I am, and have always been, fully supportive of the need to use all means available, working with all organisations – local and central government, using all internal and external processes for a full assessment of how the Combined Authority works and delivers for the community of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

“To make it absolutely clear some of these very concerns you have heard so much about in recent times are the very issues I have already raised and requested urgent review within the organisation over many months on numerous occasions.”

Dr Johnson praised the “dedicated, hard-working staff within the Combined Authority” who have impressed with their “commitment, sense of public duty and their ambition to make positive and meaningful change for the communities they serve”.

He said: “I am proud to be the mayor and I am proud of the work the Combined Authority does on a daily basis – the way I have been welcomed and supported over the last year and the willingness of the staff to embrace the change which came with the arrival of a new mayor is the very reason that I feel inspired to keep going at the most challenging of times.

“As the mayor I will be the first to acknowledge that the scrutiny, criticism and investigation has and continues to be an uncomfortable place.

Dr Nik Johnson with his mum Kath and Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner following his election win in May 2021 Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Nik Johnson with his mum Kath and Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner following his election win in May 2021 Picture: Keith Heppell

“But I absolutely believe that it is of utmost importance that you, the public and the communities we all serve need the reassurance that any process of scrutiny of public figures is comprehensive and fully transparent.”

The mayor also indicated that problems existed at the Combined Authority prior to his election last year.

“Let’s be absolutely clear that following my election in May 2021 and my arrival at the Combined Authority, the problems that the central Conservative government had already highlighted at the heart of the Combined Authority did not immediately disappear.

“I am genuinely sorry that trying to solve and work through all the legacy problems and challenges is taking so long. There is still so much to do. To turn the Combined Authority around, it needs a huge commitment from us all,” he said.

The mayor continued: “As a doctor I have seen the very best in human nature and I have seen the very worst. When the going gets tough I am not the sort of person to walk away from a challenge. Trying to diagnose the problems at the centre of this wonderful organisation has been and continues to be one of the most difficult challenges I have ever faced.

“At times it has felt that the Combined Authority has needed serious resuscitation to keep its beating heart going but I have never given up and I absolutely will not give up

“No matter how challenging the circumstances, I know after just one year that the Combined Authority is absolutely worth the effort, it is an organisation capable of huge compassion and has so much to offer.

“I am not walking away and look forward to working and cooperating with all of you in the future to bring the positive differences we want for all our communities.”

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